By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 5) – What a horrendous time it must be for life-and-death followers of the Maple Leafs. Those who watch the club with rooting interest but are not overly effected by results have it difficult enough. The people whose waking hours are governed by Leaf fortunes must be the embodiment of emotional chaos.
Perusing the Internet shows the latter group exacerbating its plight with obsession over a tank-job. According to this clairvoyant, luminous segment of the fan-base, the Leafs have considered losing games intentionally, even if the old-fashioned method – incompetence – is serving the club perfectly well.
When the puck is dropped each night, Toronto players are determined to embarrass themselves in front of thousands of people (hundreds-of-thousands watching on TV) so the team can improve its ranking for the NHL draft in Pittsburgh. Forwards and defensemen getting whacked along the boards and in front of the net; goalies posturing for unrestricted free agency in July can only envision Brian Burke sulking to the podium at Consol Energy Center without a lottery pick. The grief engendered by such an image defies comprehension. Forget that one-third of the Leafs roster will be overhauled before next season – moving up the 2012 draft board supplants all other concern in the heat of battle.
Randy Carlyle – attempting to ingrain his coaching philosophy – encourages the players in pre-game discussion to foul up as often and blatantly as possible. Fines are issued by management for those that perform effectively; the threat of reduced ice-time lingers above any player so devoid of conscience that he scores a goal.
LEAFS DEFENSEMAN MIKE KOMISAREK (8 ABOVE) RIPS INTO SABRES FORWARD VILLE LEINO BEHIND THE TORONTO NET FOR BOTCHING UP A CLEAR CHANCE TO WIN TUESDAY NIGHT’S GAME IN REGULATION TIME. LEINO APOLOGIZED AFTERWARD TO LEAF FANS.
Moreover, the NHL is tacitly involved in this initiative at the highest level – in full cooperation with the Blue and White. Prior to Tuesday’s game between the Leafs and Sabres in Buffalo, supervisor Bill McCreary held a covert meeting with the officiating crew – referees Dan O’Halloran and Mike Hasenfratz; linesmen Scott Driscoll and Mark Shewchyk. Before leaving the arena, I obtained a transcript of the dialogue which outlined the plot:
McCREARY: “Okay, fellas, I was part of a conference-call late this afternoon with Gary Bettman, Bill Daly, Colin Campbell, Mike Murphy, Brian Burke, David Nonis and the league’s counsel. Under no circumstance are we to permit or facilitate a Toronto victory in tonight’s game. If something completely bizarre and out of the ordinary happens – let’s say the Leafs build a 3-0 lead in the opening period, as ridiculous as that sounds – all of the people just mentioned will be furious and we’ll have to meet again in the first intermission.”
O’HALLORAN: “In that situation, Bill, the Buffalo players are likely to develop some anger and there could be a fight or two; the Sabres pretty much have to win tonight or their playoff hopes are kaput. How do we handle…”
McCREARY: “Leaf players are the instigator in any altercation. Period.”
O’HALLORAN: “Got it.”
HASENFRATZ: “Buffalo likes to crowd the crease against Toronto. What happens in a circumstance where – let’s say – the Leafs are up by a goal in the dying moments of regulation and a wild scrum develops in front of the Toronto net?”
McCREARY: “If the Leafs are up by a goal in the dying minutes of regulation, all of your jobs will be hanging by a thread.”
HASENFRATZ: “Okay, I understand… but it still could happen. If I’m the goal-line referee, what do I do?”
McCREARY: “Jeezus, Mike, we’ve been through this a hundred times. Lose your freaking whistle. It doesn’t matter if a particular player has smothered the puck and is piled upon by the other nine skaters. Even if the bloody scoreboard crashes to the ice for the second time in the arena’s history, you have to keep play moving. Do what you were taught in refereeing school. Position yourself off one of the posts and bend over as if you can see the puck. Keep bending and straining until you feel yourself about to capsize. Lay it on really thick… this is of critical importance to the Leafs; their fans, and the NHL hierarchy. We just have to pray that a Buffalo player – at some point – will dig the puck free and poke it over the line for the tying goal. There is no other choice, or option.”
O’HALLORAN: “I don’t think we have to worry too much about your initial scenario, Bill. We all know that Ryan Miller is one of the better goalies in the league and this game is way too important for him to allow a bad team three goals in the first period. I think the Leafs have been averaging two shots in the opening 20 minutes recently, so even the math is on our side. But, what if Miller gets stubborn and doesn’t play along?”
McCREARY: “I think you know the answer to that.”
O’HALLORAN: “You mean we’d all be fired?”
McCREARY: “Much worse than that, Dan, believe me. Bettman, Daly, Burke and Nonis have all agreed that if Buffalo falls into an early hole – or, heaven forbid, loses the hockey game – a tape will be Fed-Ex’d to Mike Milbury encouraging him to castigate your performances on radio and TV in both Canada and the United States.”
SHEWCHYK: “No… NO!!!
DRISCOLL: “Holy sh–!”
McCREARY: “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
SHEWCHYK: “I can’t even imagine being chided about my skirt.”
HASENFRATZ: “Hey, is Phaneuf clear on his role?”
McCREARY: “Yes, I met with Dion after the Leafs morning skate today. God help all of you in this room should the game somehow get into overtime. But, if you guys screw it up to that extent and Buffalo does not score in the first minute of the extra period, Dion confirms he will flip the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty.”
HASENFRATZ: “That’s what I wanted to hear.”
SHEWCHYK: “Was it a tough sell?”
McCREARY” “No, not at all. Dion tells me that when he finishes the New York Times Sunday crossword, he tends to get a little full of himself and looks to up the ante, intellectually. That’s when he logs onto MapleLeafsHotstove.com and reads the ‘tank’ threads in the chat-forum. It makes him feel whole, and provides all the incentive he needs.”
DRISCOLL: “No wonder he speaks with such vulgar language.”
McCREARY: “You think he’s vulgar. Just wait to hear what Brian Burke has to say to you guys if Buffalo doesn’t win tonight.”
Despite encountering a number of the outlandish scenarios offered by McCreary, all hands came through with flying colors. There was only one casualty: Hasenfratz was not able to straighten up as of Wednesday evening. Doctors tell him he could spend the rest of his life in a crouched position, as if searching for a loose puck.
In a private and secretive phone-call to Bettman late Tuesday night, Phaneuf vowed to keep working on his clearing flip and promised to use it – whenever necessary – in the Leafs final two games: Thursday at home to Tampa Bay and Saturday in Montreal.
Having procured all of this information, I was able to leave Buffalo with a clear mind on Wednesday morning for the drive home to Thornhill. Heck, I was in such a great mood that I even stopped for a few moments along the shore of Lake Ontario west of St. Catharines to snap a few photos:
BUFFALO’S SIGNATURE LANDMARK: ITS ART-DECO CITY HALL, IN NIAGARA SQUARE.
FINDING MY WAY OUT OF THE U.S. AND ONTO THE PEACE BRIDGE TOWARD FORT ERIE.
PASSING NIAGARA FALLS ON THE Q-E-W.
APPROACHING THE GARDEN CITY SKYWAY (ABOVE AND BELOW) NEAR ST. CATHARINES.
LAKE ONTARIO AND DOWNTOWN TORONTO (BELOW) THROUGH HAZE ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE.
MORE EARLY-SPRING LAKE VIEWS (ABOVE AND BELOW).
NEARING WAYNE GRETZKY’S HOME TOWN FURTHER ALONG THE DRIVE.
I’M TOLD THIS STRUCTURE WAS BUILT DAYS AFTER LEAFS LAST WON THE STANLEY CUP.
Facebook: Howard Berger [Thornhill ON]